Yes, it’s that time of the year again. Time to stop worrying about where Kevin Durant’s next destination is going to be; time to stop running through lists of players which the Toronto Raptors could spend their MLE on, but most importantly, time to talk actual basketball.
It seems as if the off-season has become such a spectacle, that we forget that actual basketball is played at the end of the day. Yes, the regular season can get drawn out, but year after year, it seems as if we can barely get to the end of the playoffs without the first off-season story dropping.
But this is why we’re here! This is why you’re reading this! Because you have a slightly more than mild addiction to basketball just as I do, so let’s dive into the Raptors, and get ready for what should be an extremely fun season.
The Toronto Raptors finished 48-34 last season, and got taken out in six games to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. They did this with the majority of their lineups being what would be considered small-ball. To be fair, you could consider every lineup they threw out last year as small-ball, considering their center minutes mainly came from 6’8” Precious Achiuwa, and 6’9” Khem Birch.
It seems as if the Raptors want to take the same approach heading into this season. The only big they picked up was through the draft, and that was 7’1” Christian Koloko out of Arizona.
Koloko looks like he has the potential to be a real threat in this league, but to expect a rookie (let alone a second round pick) to be your full time starting center in a conference with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid is sheer ignorance to the dominance of veteran NBA players.
However, I’m sure Nick Nurse will still try to slot Koloko in sometimes to get him reps and minutes on an NBA court for development purposes. It looks like Achiuwa has the potential to be the starting center, or at least the number one option at center, and you KNOW Nurse wants to run lineups with Pascal Siakam/OG Anunoby/Thaddeus Young at the five. And we haven’t even touched on Chris Boucher, whose energy, shot blocking and rebounding ability got him paid this off season to play a crucial role for this team.
Now that you’ve taken a deep breath after that extremely long sentence...
This still leaves us wondering: Where does Khem Birch fit in?
It does seem like he has use. As mentioned before, he is the biggest center on the team behind the rookie. He played 991 minutes last season, which was 8th on the team, and that was only in 55 games played due to an up-and-down season injury-wise.
One thing we know for sure is that no one sneaks into Nurse’s rotation. You have to earn every minute you play, and Birch had a shaky season last year. He only averaged about 4.5 points per game, and shot under 50% from the field — not great for a center. To his defense, this offensive scheme does not play to his personal strengths as a basketball player. He sometimes would get washed in the mix on the defensive end because of his inability to switch, and his lack of “true” size leaves him vulnerable as a rim protector.
In saying all of this, Toronto still needs size on the court. I know that everybody loves the small-ball approach, and believe me, I do as well. Especially with the current construction of this roster, it makes a lot of sense. However, basketball hasn’t changed completely. You still need size on the court, especially throughout the course of an 82 game season, and a hopeful four playoff rounds.
Birch is the Raptors’ size. For as much as he wouldn’t be for the majority of teams, this is the situation Toronto has found themselves in once again. As mentioned previously though, he doesn’t fit into Toronto’s offensive scheme very well. He doesn’t have the handle to isolate, nor can he isolate in the post, and he doesn’t have a jump shot to spread the floor.
Birch’s real strength is as a pick and roll dive man. He is strong, athletic, and fairly mobile. Diving hard off a screen is where Birch has the ability to thrive. The only problem is, Toronto doesn’t use the pick and roll often.
Birch was initially acquired during the end of the Kyle Lowry stint in Toronto, which Toronto fans know very well, Lowry operates a pick and roll fantastically.
If anybody were to run a pick and roll on this team, it would be Fred VanVleet, who still only ran it on 34.9% of his possessions, or Malachi Flynn, who in extremely limited minutes only ran it on 32.5% of his possessions. Although, if Flynn keeps dropping 50 bombs in these pickup games, he may take Fred’s roll as the starter...
Last year, Khem Birch only average one possession per game as the pick and roll-roll man, placing him in the 29.6 percentile. If you compare that to the season which Toronto acquired him, and still had Lowry on the team, he more than tripled his production as the roll man, running it on 3.4 possessions per game, more than tripling is point production off the pick and roll, and placing him in the 45.8 percentile. A HUGE JUMP!
To put it plainly, Birch needs to operate in the pick and roll, on a team who doesn’t run it a lot. It’s a difficult fit, even outside of the roster construction and play style, which already places him on the back-burner a little bit.
Last season, Birch averaged 18 minutes per game as a backup. I would expect that to drop a little bit. Toronto really hit their stride with Achiuwa at center last year, and I would expect Birch to become the third-string center behind him, and Toronto’s main small ball lineup (VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr, Anunoby, Siakam, Scottie Barnes). Compared to last year where Birch still managed to start 28 games as Toronto was figuring themselves out.
I would expect 10-15 minutes per game from Birch, with a similar level of production. The biggest thing is the defensive end. If he can even give them 10 minutes per game as a solid rebounder and defensive anchor, he could play a small but crucial roll in this rotation. If his defensive production doesn’t provide value, then his already limited value on the offensive end becomes even more of a liability.